Heirs – Fowl CD (Denovali Records)
Melbourne instrumental quartet Heirs share a reductivist approach with their contemporaries My Disco, but manage to take it down into a black void of sound, where the pulse slows down like a drug-induced death trip or a slow descent into a Lovecraftian netherworld.
On their debut Alchera, released by Exo Records in May 2009, one could detect the distant ripples of industrial metal deviants Godflesh, or the misanthropic catharsis of early Swans, but these influences are something they have been steadily outgrowing.
On Alchera, drummer Damian Coward acted as principal songwriter, but following a grueling tour of Europe and Japan, this key creative role has shifted to guitarist Brent Stegeman. This hasn’t so much altered the band’s sound, as added more subtlety to the way their songs’ arrangements unfold. The two musicians share a history, which allows for such a tag-team approach, having played together in a late line-up of Adelaide screamo kings Love Like Electrocution and post-rock group Maps. The addition of guitarist Ian Jackson (ex-Damn Arms) and bassist Laura Bradfield complemented their vision and led to the development of an aesthetic that stretches far beyond the input of individual players.
Unlike Stegeman’s previous musical outlet, Whitehorse, Heirs eschew the overt brutality of many doom and black metal bands. Often the heaviest music does not rely on volume and sensory overload for its effect, but employs a sense of suspense, which allows songs to unfold over time. Right from the first notes of Fowl’s opening track ‘Dust’, there’s a deliberate precision and restraint in their attack. It takes a full 15 minutes before things finally start spiraling out of control on the album’s title track. In the background, the drums try to maintain a beat, while guitar and bass take fiendish glee in their own dissolution into static and white noise.
A pretty chord progression introduces ‘Burrow’, before everything blows apart in a post-rock apocalypse of molten riffs and synth stabs, while subliminal melodies struggle to claw their way to the surface from six feet under ground, courtesy of a theremin part by guest musician Miles Brown (The Night Terrors). ‘Tyrant’, on the other hand, is an industrial barrage of noise and junkyard beats, giant machinery slamming into rusted piles of automobiles until they are reduced to tiny fragments of hot, twisted metal.
After this aural assault, ‘Men’ shifts down a gear, layering percolating synths over a down-tuned bass riff. Its slack strings audibly vibrate against the fretboard, before massed guitars swoop in like a phalanx of street sweeping vehicles, clearing early morning city streets of blood and vomit. In their wake they leave the optimistic rebirth of ‘Mother’, which ascends with a guitar solo that keeps circling around the repetitive rhythm track.
Synths once again underpin closing track ‘Drain’. As with most of the songs, Bradfield’s bass establishes the undeviating, juddering riff around which the other instruments hover in a glistening haze of rapid one-chord strumming and a cymbal-drenched percussive whirlwind. The riff almost disappears under this nervous flurry, but structure is never sacrificed entirely for the sake of noise. It’s a demonstration Heir’s perfect control over their sonic constructions, aided by engineer Neil Thomason, whose name is synonymous with capturing the post-rock sound at his Headgap studio in Melbourne.
Fowl is a great leap forward for Heirs, taking them beyond genres into a realm which is almost hermetic in its vision; intensely focused, yet also expansive. It’s technically complex, yet uncluttered and sparse in its execution. Simplicity, self-discipline and restraint are the keys to Fowl’s success. More than anything, it inspires an awe at its grandeur, rising from a sense of decay and dread to soar free of ordinary existence.
Heirs – Fowl (Denovali Records)
I have never heard a record as bleak as this. Heirs’ sophomore release is clearly goth/industrial in mood, but this is not your parents’ industrial. Skinny Puppy and Bauhaus sound positively upbeat by comparison (excluding the lyrical aspect, as Heirs has no vocals). Perhaps the closest peer is Caïna‘s 2008 album Temporary Antenna, which had some explicit goth influence, but even that is so charged with the intellectual aggression of high-concept and black metal trappings that it fails to compare. The title track of Fowl is a post-apocalyptic death march to the sea, a hopeless, menacing plod through the desert wasteland that accompanies human destruction. This and opener “Dust” make for a thoroughly despair-soaked start.
With the bleakness of Fowl comes a heaviness that sits deep in the gut of every part, from tom-heavy drums to prominent bass and distortion galore. This heaviness reinforces the generally intimidating and foreboding nature of the record, adding a smattering of heavily spiked plants to the barren landscape laid out by the repetitive and originally sparse arrangements. For all this heaviness, though, Heirs is not really a metal band, and this is not a metal record. No doubt it will resonate with other metal fans as it did with me, but the attitude that Fowl conveys is wholly different from that present on a metal release, whether it be thrash, grindcore, or doom. It is mostly observational, as though the quartet simply means to record its world without any intention of opining.
One might be inclined to think that this would strip the record of emotion, but this is far from the case. Rather, it seems that by stripping away subjective excess, Fowl leaves the listener with a rarefied version of one’s own reaction. The tension created by the arrangement of these seven pieces sets the listener up for an almost meditative experience, especially when combined with the right setting. Fowl seems to operate in a delicate space between the realms of original goth and industrial and post-rock/post-metal, where the bleakness of the first is intensified by the epic pretensions of the second, and, conversely, the lush instrumentals of the latter are enhanced by the mechanical repetition of the former.
To be blunt, I haven’t been this excited about a new record, or a new band, in a very long time. Even the most experienced and skilled ensembles rarely produce work that is as high-calibre and consistent as this release. Heirs has created something special with Fowl, a record that everyone should – at the very least – give a chance.
Heirs – Fowl CD (Denovali Records)
There are bands that deal in songs, and there are bands that deal in textures. Melbourne’s Heirs are firmly in the latter category. Their debut album, Alchera, was hailed as one of the best instrumental / noise / doom albums of 2009. Their follow up, Fowl, could potentially be hailed as one of the best of all time.
The music contained in Fowl is as disturbing as the image that adorns the front cover. The sense of disquiet starts from the opening track Dust, with minimalist bass and drums and a faint hum of electronics slowly building tension. It’s the musical version of American Psycho – something very bad is going to happen soon. You know it’s going to happen. But that doesn’t prepare you for the squall of guitar noise that kicks in, and the only thing stopping it from lifting your head right off is the rhythm section acting like a ball and chain.
Never before has such punishing music been so relentlessly hypnotic. The change-up in the nine-minute second track Fowl, grinds so hard and yet fits so perfectly that you almost don’t notice it. It’s actually shocking when the relentless groove of Tyrant stops, such is its pull.
Without devolving into hyperbole, I haven’t heard an album this invigorating, and album that sounds so urgent, immediate, essential and yet hypnotic, since, ever. If you’re a fan of any genre of heavy music, this is an absolutely essential purchase and a forerunner for Australian album of the year. Brilliant.
Heirs – Fowl (Denovali)
Heirs dwell so deeply on inky mood and atmosphere that you can forget the songs are building ever so slowly to rapturous rupture. Dubbed instru-metal and post-rock in the past, the Melbourne band is harder to pin down here, ranging from score-y meditations to doom-y dissonance. The instruments at hand are guitar, bass, drums, synth, and electronics, with some theremin from the Night Terrors’ Miles Brown. As heralded by the album’s harrowing sleeve images, there are heavy themes at play, and yet they’re bound to be only as obvious as instrumental music can make them. Rather, this beautifully produced odyssey will mean different things to different people.
That said, darkness is the overwhelming texture of choice, with an inevitable release that can materialise in the form of Explosions in the Sky-esque guitar (‘Dust’), piston-like industrial stabs (‘Tyrant’), or a simple gnashing of instrumental teeth (‘Men’). The release comes more quickly on ‘Burrow’, a chugging feat that recalls the popular string piece ‘Lux Aeterna’ from Requiem for A Dream, only with guitar leading the charge. At times something will foretell a noisy climax, like the drums on the previously mellow ‘Drain’, but Heirs achieve much more subtle, gradual shifts as well.
As satisfying as it is to hear to each track run its course, some songs are most intriguing at the very start. Take the title track, which rumbles with natural reverberation and a clean-cut repetition that really gets under one’s skin. Ignoring its creeping distortion, the melody’s eerie clarity recalls a bit of score John Carpenter might have once written for one of his films. ‘Mother’ also has a lovely opening, almost disarmingly so. It progresses from New Age-y to shoegaze-y before being scarred by feedback and eventually down-shifting back to echoed drums. It’s also often at first that there’s the most space surrounding the band’s meticulous, deliberate interplay.
A steady touring presence in Europe, Heirs have checked in with a sophomore album that stuns more often than it soothes. And yet it’s capable of both, and much more.